Hallmark of heritage

Hallmark of heritage

Grandeur of the past

Exquisite : The interiors of Seth Chhunna Mal’s ‘haveli’. PHOTO FIROZ BAKHT AHMED

According to The Punjab Gazette of July 26, 1865, Seth Chhunna Mal was the raees-e-azam (richest man) of Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. His forefathers had migrated from Lahore and Rawalpindi somewhere at the end of the 16th Century. At one time in the not too distant past, all roads in Chandni Chowk led to Seth Chhunna Mal ki haveli. It was in this haveli that the first motor car was brought in Shahjahanabad. The credit for installing the first telephone too goes to Seth Chhunna Mal.

Now, finding your way through the colourful confusion of Chandni Chowk — rickshaws, three wheelers, scooters, cars battling for space in the narrow lanes, hawkers on the sidewalks, people jostling along the pavements, vendors shouting themselves hoarse — is a little more difficult. A flight to stairs sandwiched between the textile shops and some halwais (sweets mart) lead via the tiled sidewalls and a brass banister to the main courtyard.

The main entrance doorway with white deft English tiles along with shining handrails and Victorian iron grill is in itself a preview of the excellent treat of heritage and nostalgia, that one is going to see later in the haveli. To the right and the left are grand as well as graceful drawing rooms with gilt framed mirrors and painted plaster work so typical of the bygone Mughal era.

Seth Chhunna Mal purchased this haveli built earlier by a Maratha chieftain Rai Brij Bahar. It has 128 rooms, most of them in their original form. This Khatri family of businessmen flourished in the cloth trade specialising in shawls and costly brocades for the Mughal court.

With their headquarters in Delhi, they had offices in Farrukhabad and Calcutta where the actual trade was conducted on board ship, directly with the captain. According to Anil Parshad, the occupant of the main portion of the haveli, once there also used to be a tunnel between the haveli and the apartments of the emperor in Red Fort. Later, this underground tunnel was filled for water percolated into it.

Mirza Fakhru, the son and the heir apparent of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was indebted to Seth Chhunna Mal, for he borrowed more than he could pay back, therefore releasing all his assets to Seth Chhunna Mal who became very rich after that.
It was from here that the additional business of lending money began. Seth Chhunna Mal’s best time was in 1857, during the time of Sepoy Mutiny when the British had been expelled from the city.

But, Seth Chhunna Mal remained loyal to the English at a time when the slightest lurking partiality for the British meant death. As history revealed, the revolt failed and the British were hand-in-glove with him afterwards, for they were on the look out for new native allies.

The typical haveli plan of Seth Chhunna Mal’s mansion is eminently sensible for Indian conditions, affording privacy from the street and plenty of light and air to the living quarters. Traditional Indian families did not allow the European practice of separate drawing and dining rooms, but there is a magnificent baithak (sitting-room) for the guests and formal visitors to the left of the front staircase.

An inscribed marble tablet in Urdu states that this hall was renovated in 1868. Magnificently carved, gilt framed mirrors reflect pendant glass lamps hanging from a cloth-covered ceiling.

Besides, an exquisite Adam style frieze with border, Greek vases and garlands painted in deep red and blue and touched with pure gold leaf, adorn the ceiling line. Paintings of ancestors enjoy the pride of place between the mirrors. Carved marble topped consoles are ranged along the walls and Persian carpets provide comfort underfoot.

To the left of the main staircase, across the open courtyard, and facing the street is the large bedroom of Anil Parshad. Bohemian glass chandeliers are suspended from a painted plaster work ceiling and great marble topped carved tables were purchased from the house of Colonel Skinner of Skinner’s Horse Regiment in Kashmiri Gate. His haveli was a rendezvous of all the rich and famous in Delhi. Even Mirza Ghalib refers to it in one of his letters. In 1864, Seth Chhunna Mal was also made the Honorary Magistrate of Delhi, a great honour. He was also awarded a Khillat, a testimonial, and elevated to the status of Rai Bahadur.

Since the members of the family were strict Vaishnava vegetarians, the munim’s (clerk’s) record of 1858 represents eggs as safed aaloo and chicken as chalti phirti tarkari (mobile vegetable)!

Seth Chhunna Mal had given enough evidence of his loyal activism and public charity to merit these honours. He was also one of the founder members of the Anglo-Sanskrit School. His contributions to famine relief and public work were exceptionally generous, as his income could sustain such benevolence. In Delhi in 1869, he became the richest man as his yearly income crossed one lakh rupees!

After Seth Chhunna Mal died in 1870, his nephews and sons kept up the commercial and social status of the family. Now, there are two branches of the family — the Parshads and the Mohans and there are 70 signing members in the family. The family closed its traditional business before 1936, according to Vinod Parshad.

“Our name was big in the real estate and money lending business, but with banks coming in, we lost our business,” reveals Anil Parshad. “Besides, the rent from the shops below the haveli has not been revised for years. It is as low as 12 rupees per month, per shop. There are about 100 shops in all,” he adds.

The connoisseurs of art and architecture rate this dusky mansion very highly. But, of late, slowly and gradually, the haveli is losing its glamour. Regretfully, the later additions of the ugly iron bridges, staircases and protective grids over courtyards, sheet iron windows and many other haphazard additions mar the elegance of the otherwise graceful structure.

“If the government will not help us with its restoration, we’ll turn it into a hotel. But, let me tell you, we love this place,” adds Anil.